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Sunday, Oct. 21, 2001

Aerobics: Work that body blow!

Staff writer

At more and more gyms across Tokyo, women's workout classes are beginning to resemble action-packed scenes from "Tomb Raider." Lara Croft, the students are not -- though the best could probably give her a run for her money. This is because the exercise programs today's women are signing up for are more upbeat and more aggressive than their aerobics predecessors, adding elements of contact sports for an intense workout -- and even some peace of mind.

Bodycombat training at the "eg-zas" fitness studio in Tokyo

Bodycombat is one such program. Originating in New Zealand, it was introduced to Japan in September last year by Konami Sports. Now, it is offered by 126 of the company's 151 fitness clubs and franchises, and it is popular with men as well as women.

The "eg-zas" fitness studio in Ikebukuro provides a glimpse of a typical Bodycombat workout. Here, on a recent night, about 90 men and women are exercising hard to keep up with their instructor. Breathing hard himself, he explains the next move through a headset microphone.

"OK, on to the next. Upper, upper and hook! It's easy. And then jab, jab and upper! All right? Let's start!"

The studio lights are dimmed, and the frenetic music gathers speed. Using movements derived from karate and boxing, the participants throw punches in time to the pounding beats, and the studio heats up quickly.

Konami Sports claims the exercise regimen effectively burns fat, tones the whole body and relieves stress.

The training in punching and kicking, meanwhile, can be used toward self-defense.

Across town at the AXIS.K Studio in Yoyogi, Kazue Higashiyama is leading a class in Goshinbics. As the name -- a compound of the words goshin (self-defense) and aerobics -- suggests, the aim of the program is to get practitioners in shape while teaching them how to protect themselves using martial-arts skills.

"Look at the offender! Breathe deeply! Shout!" Higashiyama yells over the driving music as she demonstrates how to break free of someone tugging at your shoulder or arm. "Ha! Ha! Ha!" the room echoes with the war cries of her class.

Higashiyama started offering Goshinbics classes in 1997 and was surprised at the positive response. In the last few years, the number of students across the country has jumped to more than 700. In Tokyo alone, Goshinbics is offered at 30 gyms and local community centers.

"We are trying to teach people how to thwart unexpected attacks so that they can protect themselves," says Higashiyama, a master in several martial arts, including karate and aikido. "By teaching self-defense skills in this way, students enjoy themselves while learning. And I hope they will forget their daily stress, at least when they are doing the exercises here."

Participants agree that the class is helpful, but they also emphasise their enjoyment.

"I go back home every night along a dark street, and so I was feeling the need to learn some self-defense skills," says 25-year-old Michi Komatsu. "But the class turned out to be very enjoyable. I can learn movements that I wouldn't master otherwise, such as how to punch powerfully. Executing these punches smoothly can be quite difficult, but I feel so good when I do."

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